An Interview With Francesca Lia Block -The Toast

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Weetzie Bat (Indiebound | Amazon) first came out in 1989, but something about it sticks in my consciousness like it was published last week — and I know I’m not alone in this. It’s not an easy book to explain to the uninitiated, but mention the series to believers, and no matter how long it’s been since they read the book, they’ll reply with a certain reverence usually reserved for cathedrals, Paris, coffee, or maybe Susan Miller’s AstrologyZone horoscopes.

When you’re sucked into the world that Francesca Lia Block has created, you accept bizarre plot points like dream logic. Previously on the Toast, Jaya Saxena summed up some of this strangeness. Our own Mallory Ortberg said recently after learning the basic plotline, “I really thought this book was about an actual bat and I am seriously disappointed.”

The books have still never had a film adaptation. Jennifer Arellano recently wrote for Entertainment Weekly, “What makes this book perfect for a big screen adaptation is the fantastical, ambiguous ’80s-to-early ’90s, old-Hollywood-obsessed Los Angeles universe.” (Block says she would love to see this happen.)

Through the magic of the internet, I spoke with Francesca Lia Block about fairy tales, stereotypes, and marriage proposals from young women.

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Welhouse: It seems like the Weetzie Bat books resonated for a lot of people who felt like outsiders. How do you picture your readers?

Block: So many people in this world feel like outsiders in one way or another, and that seems to be a common thread. What’s kind of ironic is that the books about “outsiders” are my most popular books — so in a way, everybody is an insider in this particular group of feeling alienated.

The two biggest things I hear from people who respond to Weetzie Bat are:

1. You make me see the magic in the world.

and

2. I moved to LA because of your book.

Welhouse: I wonder how it compares to their expectations.

Block: You know, almost always, they love it, and they say, “I’m so glad I’m here.” But maybe the ones that hate it just don’t come up to me and tell me.

Welhouse: You basically created an LA fairy tale.

Block: Absolutely.

Welhouse: Have you read Women Who Run With the Wolves (Indiebound | Amazon)?

Block: That’s one of my favorite books.

Welhouse: I had a feeling. I wonder what a Jungian analyst would have to say about Weetzie Bat. Especially the symbols in Cherokee and the Goat Guys (Indiebound | Amazon), like the horns. It’s very much in a fairy tale tradition.

Block: That’s my favorite stuff: the old, dark fairy tales. That’s what I get the most excited about. I hadn’t read Women Who Run With the Wolves until after Weetzie Bat, but certainly all the source material was reflected in the fairy tales that I’d read. I wrote Weetzie Bat sort of for my own pleasure, and wish fulfillment. I was reading a lot of poetry at the time. I also started reading more Latin American magical realism.

Welhouse: What poets were you reading?

Block: Emily Dickinson, H.D., Pound, Eliot, Yates, Keats…I loved Anne Sexton. Sylvia Plath, of course.

Welhouse: Of course you would love Anne Sexton.

Block: The fairy tales, certainly, and transformation. And the confessionalism of her poetry tends to be in a lot of the poetry that I write. A lot of the fiction is like that, too — not so much in Weetzie Bat because it’s veiled through the fairy tale, but I write a lot of stuff that’s a little more raw.

Welhouse: You’ve said before that the AIDs epidemic influenced Weetzie Bat and your other work in the 1980s. Particularly the idea of feeling a sense of fear along with love. I’m thinking back to the Brooklyn Book Festival panel on YA censorship that you were a part of — it seems like there are YA authors who have fans who continue to come back to their books when they’re no longer teenagers — and it seems like what you have in common is that you’re not afraid to talk about really dark subjects. What I noticed, recently re-reading Weetzie Bat more recently — right away in the first few chapters, you have these two high school kids drinking and having sex they regret, and there are consent issues — and you don’t shy away from writing about that.

Block: Well, I didn’t write that book planning to write a YA book. I was in my 20s and I was thinking more for people my age — which was a young adult, but not a teenager.

Welhouse: Well, now they have the genre term “new adult.” But people weren’t using that genre classification yet in the ’80s.

Block: The term “new adult” has been slapped on very recently. It could have some value for marketing purposes. Some of the later ones in the series, I thought a little more about a younger audience. Like Witch Baby (Amazon) is a younger book. Well, there are some adult themes, too. The Hanged Man (Indiebound | Amazon) wasn’t at all a young adult book in my head, but I just felt lucky that I had a publisher who was willing to publish what I was writing. But I do think now, when I’m setting out to write an adult book versus a young adult book, the publisher would say, “Could you put in more of those sex scenes?” For instance, in Love in the Time of Global Warming (Indiebound | Amazon) , I was skipping over some of them, not because I was writing for teenagers, but just because I wasn’t thinking about it. She said, “No! Could you go back and fill in that part?” Not in a graphic way, but in a very detailed way. I try to just write the story that I need to write — usually that does have some “content.”

Welhouse: In a lot of your books, you write about sexual pleasure and agency, specifically for women and young women. I recently heard an agent say, “I just want to get a pitch for a manuscript where a teenage girl has sex, and nothing terrible happens.” I think there’s a lot of that complexity in your work, with young women figuring out sex — like the character of Cherokee.

Which reminds me that I also wanted to ask you about some of the Native American imagery, and the character of Coyote.

Block: Controversial, I know.

Welhouse:  Debbie Reese wrote on Racialicious that she found the native imagery stereotypical. How would you respond to that?

Block: I feel sad about it. I certainly appreciate the discussion of the topic. Somebody wrote to me and said, “Could you please take down all imagery with feathers from your Pinterest?” She said it nicely — “It’s disrespectful, because feathers in Native American culture mean something spiritual and powerful, and if they’re just used for a fashion statement, it disrespects this.” Certainly I meant no disrespect in any way at all. All my characters in Weetzie Bat tend to be caricatures in some way. Weetzie — she could be a one-dimensional sketch. She’s not particularly a fully-rounded person in a lot of ways. I think that’s true of all of them. I did revisit Coyote in Necklace of Kisses (Indiebound | Amazon) and I think in that book, they’ve all grown up and the the story is more fully fleshed out, and you see more about their pasts and who they are as mature people.

To be honest with you, if I had been reading about this kind of stuff at the time I was writing it, I would have probably avoided it. I tell myself as a writer that if your intentions are good and you believe in them, then write it. But, yes, I’m influenced by my culture at the time. My parents took me to visit Native American reservations when I was a child and I was moved, and my imagination was engaged, as it is with Celtic lore. I’m interested in Native American tales, and Greek mythology, and Judaism — that’s my background, and I’m interested in some of that material, but not as much.

So to me, it certainly isn’t met with disrespect, it’s meant with admiration. The way I write about any kind of spirituality that isn’t necessarily my own, but that I’m drawn to and fascinated by. Or not even only spirituality, but also aesthetics.

Welhouse: There’s so much of a sense of aesthetics in your work. Also, so many terrible things happen, but it’s all infused with this fairy tale sense. Somehow, there’s all this good stuff happening and all this bad stuff happening, but something about the way the world is drawn makes it feel manageable.

Block: We feel so much pain and darkness, and I’ve experienced that in my own life, certainly. At the same time, there’s so much love and magic and beauty. I really want to honor both of these. That’s why I like magical realism, because it shows both. I like dark and light, mixed. What you’re saying is interesting because it’s another layer — you show both, but you show it through a certain lens that as you said, sort of makes it okay.  Language, poetry and creativity can take you through even the dark stuff.

Welhouse: You have that in some of your other books, too. I’m thinking specifically of Wasteland (Indiebound | Amazon). I was surprised by the incest element of it. At the same time, it was painted in such a way that was so oddly lyrical. What was the response to that?

Block: You know, it’s funny, it’s kind of gone under the radar. I’ve had almost no reaction to it.  Except sort of the cult people who say, “Oh, that’s my favorite. I love that one.”

Welhouse: I wonder if part of the lack of reaction might be the subtlety of the cover and title. You wouldn’t know what it’s about unless you read about it somewhere, or actually read the book.

Block: It didn’t have a lot of press in that way, so I think that people just don’t know about it. That’s why I thought it was very funny and ironic that the book that people wanted to burn was Baby Be-bop (Goodreads | Amazon), because it’s very, very mild compared to my other books. In The Hanged Man, her father is having sex with her, and there are intense sex scenes. Wasteland, same thing. Then I have the really hardcore erotic adult stuff. So it’s funny that Baby Be-bop, which is a sweet coming-of-age story with — yes, it’s a gay coming-out story, which is why it was problematic. I never know what’s going to catch people’s wraths.

Welhouse: Sometimes it really is whatever people notice. I remember at your Brooklyn Book Festival panel, David Levithan was talking about the reaction to seeing his book Two Boys Kissing (Indiebound | Amazon) get banned versus Brent Harbinger’s Geography Club (Indiebound | Amazon) not get banned, just because of the title and that people didn’t immediately realize what it was about. I remember when I first started reading YA, having the sense that it was a sort of secret, reading a book that had content like that — because all the adults around you look at you and think, “How wonderful! They’re reading!” They don’t know that you’re getting all these secrets.

Block: There’s a great subversive thing about reading, isn’t there? It’s like a secret club, and I think that appeals to young people as they’re trying to define their identities as separate from the adult world.

Welhouse: Is there anything that you wish people would ask you about more in interviews, and they don’t?

Block: I do feel that what I like people to know about me who don’t know — that my books don’t necessarily fit into one category. I don’t look at people like categories, and I try not to overly categorize the world around me. My readers tends to be more women, perhaps, but besides that, there’s a great range. What’s common is more of the philosophy about life, rather than what body you’re in at this particular time.

Welhouse: I’ve ended up talking to a lot of writers in particular who feel inspired by your work. Particularly poets and young adult authors, like Erica Lorraine Scheidt, who wrote Uses for Boys (Indiebound | Amazon).

Block: I love her, and I love her book.

Welhouse: I also got a couple marriage proposals to pass on to you, overwhelmingly from young women.

Block: [laughs] I was going to guess they were from young women! My boyfriend is always saying to me, “It’s the girls! It’s those girls. We go anywhere for those readings, and that’s who comes up to you.” I’m waiting for some 50-year-old man to come up, but it’s always young women.

Welhouse: Well, now I can tell them that I’ve passed their messages on.

Block: Wait. One thing. Tell them that I love them, too. Because believe me, I fall in love with all my readers so often. They’re amazing women. So, thank them, from my heart.

Abigail Welhouse is a poet, and her writing has appeared most recently in the Rumpus, the Heavy Feather Review, Keep This Bag Away From Children, nin, and Yes, Poetry. Please send photos of mini-horses to her on Twitter.

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